Montreal’s Leylah Annie Fernandez continued her astonishing run at Flushing Meadows on Tuesday, defeating No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) in a two-hour, 24-minute thriller to advance to the semifinals of a major for the first time in her young career.
The victory was just one of a remarkable stretch of five wins at the tournament for the recently turned 19-year-old.
The bright-eyed teenager opened the event by beating two former top-20 players in Ana Konjuh and Kaia Kanepi.
Then she produced one of the upsets of the tournament, stunning defending champion and four-time major winner Naomi Osaka 5-7, 7-6, 6-4.
That was backed up with a 4-6, 7-6, 6-2 victory over three-time major champion and veteran Angelique Kerber.
With her latest win, she is now just the third Canadian woman in the Open Era to advance to the semifinals of the U.S. Open, joining Bianca Andreescu who accomplished the feat two seasons ago, and former player Carling Bassett-Seguso, who reached final four in 1984.
She’s also the youngest player to knock off two players ranked inside the top five since 23-time Slam winner Serena Williams did so back in 1999.
How has the teenager managed such success in New York?
Here are three simple keys to her spectacular run at Flushing Meadows:
In tennis, players talk almost ad-nauseum about confidence and the role it plays in one’s results.
A "confident" player is swinging freely and relaxed, unnerved by the prospect of missing shots, and has a willingness to be aggressive and take risks.
A player who is lacking it will play more tentatively and cautiously, relying only on keeping the ball in court, too fearful of crucial mistakes.
Fernandez has shown no fear on the big stage, and pundits were taken aback when she acknowledged believing she could defeat Osaka ahead of their matchup in the third round.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 4, 2021
Fernandez won her first career WTA title in March of this season in Monterrey, Mexico, with her quick-strike brand of tennis, as she hugged the baseline and redirected shots into spaces at will. However, since that tournament, she had not compiled consistent results.
She had a relatively quiet clay court season, suffered a first-round exit at Wimbledon and was 2-2 in her North American hard-court swing leading into the final major of the season.
Despite that inconsistency, Fernandez trusted in her development and improvement as a professional.
“Honestly after my win in Monterrey, I was training well, playing well,” said Fernandez.
“Just a few bad matches here and there. I always went back to work. Went back home to work harder, try to improve my game. I was glad that every match that I played I was improving little by little.”
That trust in her process, instilled from her father and coach Jorge, has been a focal point to her success at Flushing Meadows.
One aspect of Fernandez’s game that’s been crucial to her success this fortnight has been her serve, and the ability to protect it.
While she doesn’t have significant power behind it, Fernandez has been able to hit her spots well with her left-handed spin, and earn comfortable service holds.
She surrendered just three breaks of serve in her first two matches, coming through both in straight sets.
She neutralized the return game of Osaka in the third round, saving three of five break-point chances the four-time Slam winner had, in part by making 80 per cent of her first serves in the match.
In tightly contested battles with Kerber and Svitolina, she finished above the 50 per cent mark on second-serve points won, a key statistic to swing crucial points in her favour.
While her baseline game and ability to find angles around the court has been a cornerstone to her success here, the serve has also been an unheralded weapon for Fernandez.
Feeding off the crowd
While Fernandez is a self-described introvert, she’s embraced the electricity and atmosphere that comes from a major sporting event in New York City.
There is nothing quite like a U.S. Open crowd, particularly during the night sessions when the stands are packed, the acoustics seem to carry and alcohol is flowing a bit more freely.
It’s been a love affair between Fernandez and the New York fans since she arrived, and they have rallied behind her in tremendous fashion, starting with her three-set victory over Osaka.
Fernandez has often summoned their energy too, raising her arms with exuberance, offering the pump of a fist or shouting various versions of "Come on!" toward her coaching box.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 5, 2021
Perhaps it’s because it’s been a dream of hers for a long time.
After her quarterfinals win, Fernandez was asked why she loves competing on a big stage.
“I honestly don't know,” admitted the teenager.
“I think it's something from inside of me, because from a very young age I've always wanted to be on the first court playing in front of parents.”
“When I was younger, I've always seen myself being in a big stadium in front of so many people and just having fun on the court. I've imagined myself playing on every tournament, every Grand Slam, at the biggest stage.”
She’ll be playing on the biggest court Thursday night when she faces world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka.
Bright-eyed and ready.